TOMS RIVER -- With four championships in the last seven contested tournaments, the Manasquan boys basketball teams has made itself at home in the WOBM Christmas Classic in recent years.

On top of that, the Warriors are coming off their first ever NJSIAA Group II championship in 2022-23 and rode into Toms River for the Ruhnke Bracket championship as the last unbeaten team remaining in the Shore Conference.

The Warriors, however, ran into a rare breed of opponent on Saturday night: a team that actually makes its home at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena and one with more state championship experience on its roster than Manasquan has.

Toms River North -- the No. 7 team in the Shore Sports Network Shore 16 rankings and No. 2 seed in the WOBM Ruhnke bracket -- leaned on its trio of state-championship football stars to author of a hard-nosed, 63-53 win over No. 2 ranked and top-seeded Manasquan that secured Toms River North's first WOBM Classic championship since December of 2014.

Senior Micah Ford led the Mariners with 21 points, seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks and his fellow senior football standouts, Jeremiah Pruitt and Tareq Council, each added nine points and were instrumental in Toms River North's lockdown defensive performance that held Manasquan to 33 points through the first three quarters.

PHOTO GALLERY: Toms River North vs. Manasquan by Ray Rich Photography

Toms River North senior Micah Ford. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
Toms River North senior Micah Ford. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

"Coming off football, we know how to win," Ford said. "We know what it takes to win. We know the moment you put your head down, the game can just change like that, so we just keep our heads up high and hope for the best."

"We know that we’re championship players," Pruitt said. "It doesn’t matter what sport: football, basketball, baseball, soccer. We’re athletes, so we come out with that championship mindset every single game."

Ford was the Shore Sports Network Football Most Valuable Player in 2023 as the quarterback and safety for a Toms River North team that went 12-2 this past fall and 26-2 with back-to-back Group 5 championships in 2022 and 2023. The only two games Toms River North lost this year were losses to Red Bank Catholic and Donovan Catholic that Ford was unable to finish due a knee injury that bothered him for part of the season.

In a first-round, overtime win over Colts Neck on Tuesday, Ford appeared to re-injure his knee and left the game momentarily before returning. In the last two rounds, he has been unencumbered, scoring 11 points in Thursday's win over Central and putting up an all-around performance Saturday in which he scored 13 of his points in the second half.

Ford was named the Ruhnke Bracket Most Valuable Player for the tournament.

"He is a special athlete and a special kid," Toms River North coach Rory Caswell said. "There is nothing more you can say than that. He just makes plays when he needs to make plays. He takes such good care of his body and he is so explosive that when he is making good basketball plays, he is very tough to stop."

Pruitt and Council have been playmakers in both sports and Pruitt has leveled up on the basketball court in the early part of the new season. Six of Pruitt's points on Saturday were the product of two three-pointers and he already has a 23-point performance this season in which he hit five three-pointers.

"Jeremiah just chases whoever we ask game after game and he doesn’t get tired," Caswell said. "Same thing with Micah. They all do their roles well: Baker, Sherrod, Garrett, the sophomore Kazanowsky – they are all taking their roles and playing solid and smart."

"I think our basketball ability definitely gets overlooked," Pruitt said. "All of us have been playing basketball our whole life. I know that we know how to play – it doesn’t matter what level. We came out and we showed it this tournament."

On Saturday, Pruitt also pitched in five rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. The Mariners didn't not stick any one defender on Manasquan top scorers Griffin Linstra, Jason Larned and freshman Rey Weinseimer, instead allowing their athletic lineup to switch up throughout the game and within possessions.

"We have always mixed up the defense over the years, but I don’t think we have played a possession of zone this year," Caswell said. "I tell the guys we’re playing solid, halfcourt, man-to-man defense and when we get the rebound, we’re looking to go in transition where we can. I think that’s been our calling card: we’re sitting in and paying hard-nosed defense and it really goes with the kids that we have and they have really taken to it."

Junior Sherrod Nelson was also a key cog on offense. He finished with 15 points -- nine of which came in the first half, with the other six coming in the fourth quarter. Nelson had to leave the Dec. 18 loss at Toms River South due to a cut that required stitches and his absence hurt the Mariners in their only loss. The junior has been the pace-setter as the primary ball-handler on offense.

Owen Baker scored only six points on Saturday, but also added four assists and two steals while also scoring in key spots. Baker picked up a steal near midcourt in the final seconds of the first half and laid it in just as time expired, giving Toms River North a 24-23 lead heading into the break.

Ford scored seven of his points in the third quarter, when Toms River North took control of the game. The Mariners outscored Manasquan, 18-10, in the quarter to go up by nine, 42-33, heading to the fourth. The Mariners pumped the lead as high as 15 during the the fourth quarter and Manasquan never got it closer than five.

Linstra led Manasquan with 23 points and 14 rebounds and connected on a pair of shots that sliced Toms River North's lead to 44-39 midway through the fourth. The Mariners, however, responded with an 13-3 run that stretched the lead to 57-42.

"I think teams get demoralized playing against us," Pruitt said. "We outjump them, we out-strength them and we’re just physically stronger than them. I think that lowers team’s confidence levels."

Larned added 13 points for Manasquan, freshman Rey Weinseimer chipped in nine and senior Ryan Mulvaney rounded out the Manasquan scoring with eight.

With losses by Manasquan in the WOBM Classic final and Ranney in the Albert E. Martin Buc Classic final on Saturday, there will not be any undefeated teams from the Shore Conference heading into 2024. Toms River North is one of 11 one-loss teams and with wins over No. 3 Colts Neck, No. 5 Central Regional and No. 2 Manasquan at the WOBM Classic, the Mariners have as good a case as any team to be ranked No. 2 in the Shore Conference rankings heading into the New Year.

PHOTO GALLERY: Toms River North vs. Manasquan by Ray Rich Photography

Toms River North junior Sherrod Nelson. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
Toms River North junior Sherrod Nelson. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

A win with those kind of ramifications attached might warrant an on-court celebration, but the Mariners players saved their smiles for the locker room and enjoyed a more matter-of-fact celebration than their rival, Toms River South, enjoyed after winning the Steve Gepp Bracket earlier in the night -- Toms River South's first WOBM title since 1991.

While the nine-year drought that Toms River North ended was a substantial one in its own right, the Mariners consider it just one goal checked off the list. Now that Toms River North has a win over a state-ranked Manasquan squad, it can begin to dream big about its own status within the conference and around the state.

"I think it’s more that they have bigger goals for the year," Caswell said of the subdued celebration. "And they have been through some big moments in basketball and football. This is definitely something they wanted – they are going to be celebrating in the locker room – but they just have a certain mentality. They took care of business here, they’ll celebrate, but they know there is a next step."

PHOTO GALLERY: Toms River North vs. Manasquan by Ray Rich Photography

Photo: Ray Rich Photography
Photo: Ray Rich Photography

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